Mystery of Fatal Confederate Submarine Mission Closer To Being Solved

As Civil War Historian Bruce Catton points out in America Goes To War, the War Between The States forever altered modern warfare.

Neither side in the Civil War was prepared to stop anywhere short of complete victory. In the old days, wars had been formalized; two nations fought until it seemed to one side or the other that it would not be worth while to fight any longer, and then some sort of accommodation would be reached…But in the Civil War it was all or nothing.

Because of this new approach to war, after the first shot was fired there could be no compromise, no half-way point where the two sides could get together and agree on a truce. This all or nothing approach led to the invention of modern artillery, machine guns and the Civil War marked the introduction of submarine warfare.

By today’s standard the war’s submarines were very primitive.

But when the H.L. Hunley launched on the cold winter night, Feb. 17, 1864, from Charleston Harbor, and torpedoed the USS Housatonic, destroying the ship — the sub made history by becoming the first submarine to sink a war ship.

But it costs the Confederates more than the Federals as the submarine did not make it back to shore, costing the lives of all seven aboard. Before its fatal mission that night, 13 men had already lost there lives in the submarine project and as the History Channel reports,

For the third time, Hunley slipped to the bottom of Charleston Harbor, but exactly why remains a mystery. The undersea vessel could have been fatally damaged in the torpedo explosion, hit by a shot from Housatonic or sucked into the vortex of the sinking warship.

In 2000, the submarine was lifted from the water and for the past 15 years, scientists have been working to remove the gunk and sediment from the naval device. Recently, they uncovered the hull and one scientist admitted they are closing in on a theory as to why the hand-cranked sub sank.

Paul Mardikian, senior conservator on the Hunley project told the Associated Press that the exposed hull has revealed some things that may help solve the mystery — although he stopped short of revealing what those things were.

Last May, the submarine was placed inside a solution of sodium hydroxide to loosen the encrustation. In August, scientists began removing the loosen material with air powered chisels and dental tools. Approximately 70 percent of the hull is now exposed.


Learn More

Gold Coin found in H. L. HunleyIf you want to know more about the history of the submarine’s restoration project — or the history of its Civil War service — head over to the Friends of Hunley website. The site has a wealth of information including an intriguing story about a recovered gold coin belonging to the lieutenant in charge of the mission, George Dixon.

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